Alpacas are the most plentiful of the four South American camelids. With 3.5 million alpacas in Peru, this number represents 75% of the world’s total population. These animals provide sustenance for countless families in the highlands of the Peruvian Andes. Families have been raising herds of Alpacas for thousands of years. Annual shearing provides their main income. They live at elevations of over 1300 feet, among spectacular landscapes where daily temperature ranges can vacillate as much as 86 degrees.
Alpacas are usually 3′ 9″ to 4′ 9″ in height, and weigh between 99 to 174 pounds. They have a smaller and more curved profile than the llama. There are two breeds of the Alpacas: the Huacaya and the Suri. The Huacaya is the more common type in Peru representing 93% of the population, and has relatively short fiber which is dense, curly and voluminous. Fur covers most of their body, the face and lower parts of the legs are the only parts with short fibers. The Suri has long, straight hair which is silky and exceptionally lustrous. Alpacas in Peru are shorn with knives or shears, usually once a year between November and April. The yield per animal varies, but generally averages about five pounds per animal. There are alpacas, however, which can yield fleece weighing up to 15 pounds.
The color of the fiber varies with 22 colors that have been defined. Alpaca colors range from white to black through grays, fawns, and browns. This huge range is not commonly found among other natural fibers. The fiber is sorted by hand according to its fineness and divided into qualities such as:
The names of these qualities do not reflect the age of the animals or other phenotypic characteristics. The term “Baby”, for example, is applied to products (tops, yarns, cloth, etc.) where the average fiber diameter is 22.5 microns. The fiber used to obtain this quality does not necessarily come from baby animals; it could easily come from an adult animal with a very fine coat.
The varying qualities are used to create different products such as cloth, scarves, sweaters, blankets, rugs and other products. Alpaca may also be blended with other fibers, preferably with other natural fibers. Alpaca is extraordinarily strong, even in the finest qualities, thus making it ideal for industrial processing. Furthermore, it’s easily dyed to any color and always retains its natural luster. It is also possible to process Alpaca on the woolen or worsted systems, so that it can be used to produce a range of cloths from coarse tweeds to fine gabardine.
Alpaca fiber does not easily break, fray, stain or accumulate charges of static electricity. Alpaca provides a relatively high yield of fiber after processing (between 87% and 95% compared with 43% to 76% for sheep’s wool). In addition, it is easy and economical to process owing to the lack of grease or lanolin in the fiber and, unlike cashmere, does not need to be de-haired.